Many a football fan has wondered privately, but more often publicly, how the Pascal Cygans and Titus Brambles of this world continue to command a respectable wage for playing at the highest level. Granted, dear Pascal has moved on these days, but he and others like him still get paid huge sums of money for being distinctly average footballers. But, then again, perhaps us fans are too harsh on the poor souls? They can't have got as far as they have without having some ability, can they? A similar question can be asked of the LMA Manager series, which, unlike Cygan and Bramble, is very popular. As of writing, LMA 2007 holds fourth spot in the UK charts, and a quick look at the LMA Manager forums shows a strong and healthy community supporting it. Yet, it's a series that flatters to deceive, often proving to be clumsy and bug ridden, whilst occasionally showing glimpses of the potential that lies beneath.
As a football title LMA 2007 boasts all the usual features we've come to expect. All the transfers, promotions, relegations and other goings on are up-to-date, including deadline day signings, which can be downloaded for free upon purchase of the game. Although, there are still just the eight playable leagues, Codemasters claims to have expanded the game database to include more players and teams from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia, adding to the potential pool of players whom you can sign. Oddly, though, there's no word on exactly how many teams and players this expansion constitutes. Other new features include updated visuals, longer training matches, improved loading times and highlights from all the games in your league via the Football One feature, which first appeared in LMA 2006.
When starting up the game, LMA 2007 does a pretty good job of making the player feel comfortable. You are welcomed by the reassuringly middle-of-the-road tones of Snow Patrol and, once you've customised the appearance of your in-game likeness and dressed him in a silly coat, you are ready to select your team and begin your career. LMA games have always made it easy to choose the level of control you want, and LMA 2007 is no different. When creating a game, first-timers can choose to avoid dealing with training schedules or advertising hoardings, and just stick to the basics of picking the team, selecting the tactics and scouting the market for players. LMA veterans, though, will feel immediately at home, for the simple reason that the interface hasn't changed one iota since LMA 2006. All the information is split into nine menus, each with its own sub-menus, which can be navigated using the shoulder and trigger buttons. It's by no means a perfect system - it'll take a good hour for newcomers to learn - but considering the restraints on control it does a satisfactory job of presenting all of the information and options available to you. The only slight disappointment is the lack of any tutorial to further ease new players into the experience.
Training, which you can choose to leave alone, is actually very simple, despite having the most sub-menus of any menu section. Each player can be trained in a small number of disciplines and it's a simple case of finding the right combination for each position. Once you've done this, you simply need to apply it to your players and let them get on with it. During early season matches your team will likely struggle to string moves together, but as they become more tactically aware their football visibly improves. It's a neat system, although it can make early season encounters a little dour. You can also vary the intensity (light, normal or heavy), focus (fitness, finishing, defending, advanced or general) and bias (individual or squad) of your team's training, making it easy to adjust without fiddling with individual schedules. The final variable in the training system is the quality of club facilities. When you start, the facilities you have depend upon on the status of your club, but it's a good idea to upgrade them if you can. Better facilities have a significant impact on your players' development, especially your youth players; although there's no guarantee the board will accept your request for an upgrade.
Hitting the transfer market, LMA 2007 again keeps things simple whilst providing enough realistic detail to keep people happy. Searching the market is easy enough, but if you truly want to know players before you sign them you'll need to use the excellent scouting system. In short, the scouting system works on the sound assumption that you need to look at players more than once before you know enough about them. Once you assign a scout to a player, the scout will file reports which slowly give you a clear picture of the player's ability. They'll tell you what he's good at, the status of his club compared to yours, how much money they'll likely want, as well as rate the player in all the skill attributes.
Having read this far you're probably thinking that LMA 2007 is a pretty good game, and you'd be right, until this point at least. Unfortunately, the transfer system has a fatal flaw, one which begins the rot for LMA 2007, and sets an all too familiar tone for the series. LMA 2007's transfer system is rather like what the real world transfer system would be, if it were like The Sun's transfer gossip column. To say it's 'over active' comes very close to the dictionary definition of 'understatement'. Indeed, it's not just 'over active' but completely insane and without any logic. Here's just a quick selection of the transfers that took place during my first Premiership season: Louis Saha to Chelsea, Sami Hyypia to Everton, Paul Scholes to Chelsea, Xabi Alonso to Newcastle, Gabriel Heinze to Liverpool and, this is the deal breaker, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho to Arsenal! Any game, but especially football management games, relies on suspending your disbelief, on making the game seem real enough without making it boring. These transfers make such an exercise a severe test on any imagination, however fervent it may be. The idea that top clubs would sell their best players to their most bitter rivals is just ridiculous.
As staggering as some of the transfer dealings are they could be rescued by a good match engine. LMA features a fully 3D match engine and Codemasters has once again spent much time sprucing up its looks. You won't be fooled into thinking you're watching a FIFA 07 replay, but it's a good looking game. There has also been some visible improvement in the quality of football on display. In LMA 2006, players seemed locked on rails, running up and down the pitch, resulting in matches that lacked any real creative spark or excitement. LMA 2007's match engine is certainly more dynamic. There's more off the ball movement, and occasionally teams will make moves that you'd be genuinely impressed with were you watching a real game. Dugout commands, which allow you to change tactics on the fly, also continue to add a nice sense of control - even if their effectiveness is not always apparent.
Unfortunately, it's a case of one step forward and two steps back for the LMA match engine. Improved though the football may be, such instances of flowing and engaging football pale in comparison to the high volume of skittish and plainly stupid incidents that occur in every game.
They aren't isolated incidents, either, with similar things happening in every game, spoiling any immersion you might get from some of the better moments the match engine serves up. Frequently, you'll find matches where the ball pings backward and forward from one end to the other as defenders clear the ball hastily, and the midfield becomes hopelessly bunched. Defences are completely incapable of dealing with attackers running at them, often running backward and then moving out the way like the parting of the red sea. Meanwhile, strikers, still insist on trying to score from 20 yards when they are through on goal. There is more, but it would be pointless to go on any further.
Playing LMA Manager 2007 is a frustrating experience. Frustrating, because, the game does do some things very well. It provides a very different and far more accessible experience to its most high-profile competitors, and this alone makes it worth a look for some people. To enjoy the game, however, one has to play it with blinkers on and block out the insanely stupid things it throws at you on a rather too regular basis. If you can do this, good luck to you, but this game isn't a big enough step forward from LMA 2006 to represent any real value.